Revitalized Indian eatery isn't the back alley number it was
DEBU SAHA’S BIRYANI HOUSE (25 Wellesley East, at Yonge, 416-927-9340) Once a tiny take-away dishing up inexpensive lunchtime noshes, this northern Indian spot moves into deluxe digs that match the richly sauced menu highlights. Yes, the previous joint’s ridiculously low prices have nearly doubled — goodbye, $5 thali — but chef Saha’s serious step up justifies the wallet damage. Complete meals for $30 per person, including all taxes, tip and an imported beer. Open for $10.95 lunch buffet Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, selected menu 3 to 5 pm, and for dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 pm, brunch Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Licensed. Access: 16 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Foodie site www.chowhound.com has been buzzing the past few weeks about the sudden change of ownership at Biryani House, the insanely tiny Indian take-away on Roy’s Square famous for its first-rate meal-deal thali. Netizens are in a state of epicurean shock over the seeming disappearance of Biryani chef Debu Saha, the affable cook who made this obscure hole in the wall a dining destination with a devoted following.
NOW revealed last week that because the picturesque block at Yonge and Bloor will be levelled for a 60-storey high-rise, Saha sold the business to the folks running the falafel franchise next door and moved his superb northern Indian eatery to deluxe digs a few blocks south. Adding to the confusion, the former Biryani House on Roy’s Square is now called “The Biryani House” so as not to scare away customers. Needless to say, the old place ain’t the same without Saha.
His new resto has been appropriately dubbed Debu Saha’s Biryani House. A seemingly jinxed second-storey space overlooking the Wellesley subway station, it’s had several incarnations, all flops. But now, with Saha’s luxurious Mogul menu, it works. Anyone familiar with the previous House will be gobsmacked.
From the top of the stairs, the split-level space spreads out, lit by warm sunlight flooding through a floor-to-ceiling window that curves around the carpeted room. Wine goblets glint on linen-draped tables surrounded by soft-cushioned hard-backed red maple chairs. Chandeliers twinkle above as CBC Radio jazz makes calming dinner music.
Enough with the decor. What about the $10.95 weekday lunch buffet? Served on the upper level, it includes several of Saha’s specialties: sensuous eggplant bharta garnished with ginger strands and red bell pepper, buttery chicken korma, cheesy paneer ‘n’ peas and, for the first time at Biryani House, lovely tandoori chicken and fluffy naan cooked in an actual tandoor (the old BH didn’t have one).
The impressive presentation — stainless steel serving dishes with retractable lids, salads like chickpea-potato in tamarind dressing and an addictive Asian slaw, sculpted fruit — justifies the price increase.
At dinner, the bill is considerably higher than Biryani’s back-alley days. Example: Sultaani Chaap, four meaty lamb chops marinated in ginger, mint and lemon juice, grilled in the tandoor, flambéed in rum and finally tossed with sweet sultanas ($14.95, previously $7.99 for three chops). Worth every rupee. Newcomers include incendiary Calcutta Street-Style Chili Chicken ($13.95), tandoor-fired cubes of chicken in pink yogurt paste mixed with green chilies and onion, tender lamb skewers on a bed of arugula (Boti Kabaab, $12.95) and Portuguese-inspired Goan Seafood Perry Perry ($12.95). Piri-piri, perhaps?
Vegetarian mains best demonstrate Saha’s creativity. Raspberry Matar ($10.95) finds little nuggets of mild paneer — the fruit in question — sauced in almond cream studded with curry leaf and dressed with crisply fried onion threads. Think veggie meat loaf while chowing down on Chutney Wala Koft ($9.95), an innovative burger made of jackfruit, potato and crunchy coconut sauced with tomato-yogurt cream and dusted with roasted sunflower seeds.
Saffron-scented Bahar-E-Gobhi ($9.95) sees cauliflower in buttery crushed-almond cream plated with dried apricots, seedless grapes and explosively ripe cherry tomatoes, while Punj Rattani Daal ($8.95) is a delicious, textured lentil stew sweetened with coconut milk. Sides include Lobia Aur Tomatar Salat ($4.95), delish black-eyed peas with both cherry and seeded beefsteak tomato in lemony vinaigrette and tandoor-roasted garlic, and salty but sweet Nawabi Raita ($3.95), thick house-made yogurt mixed with raw carrot julienne, walnuts and mint leaf.
There are two easily corrected mis-steps: no Indian beer, not even fake Kingfisher and someone should repair the tear in the carpet sharpish.
Like the Jeffersons, Biryani House has moved on up. Some penny-pinching old guard will be appalled. Others will laugh at the over-the-top surroundings. But the New! Improved! Biryani House — make that Debu Saha’s Biryani House — has never been better..
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